Belle Harris‘s experience in prison is an interesting story from late nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint history. Part of why it’s fascinating is that she kept a record of her time while she was in prison. Recently, Church historian Ken Adkins talked about the Belle Harris prison journal at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, partly due to the recent online publication of the journal by the Church Historian’s Press. What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).
Who exactly was Belle Harris? Ken Adkins explained that:
Belle Harris was raised in rural southern Utah. She wasn’t wealthy and didn’t come from a particularly prominent family. But she had ambition, loved to read, and was taught by her family to speak her mind.
I tend to think generationally—for better or worse—and I think it is important to note that she is the same generation as Heber J. Grant. They are the first generation of saints to be born in the Utah territory, and they are the last to practice polygamy in the states.
Her parents are Joseph F. Smith’s generation, they were born and raised in the faith, but came across the plains as children. So, we are talking about a third-generation Latter-day saint.
He added that, at the time:
The Edmunds Act was passed in March 1882, and the federal district courts were eager to test it out. Famously, Rudger Clawson was one of the men to be convicted in 1884.
Less famously, Annie Gallafant a young pregnant woman was the first woman to be imprisoned, in November 1882. Luckily, she was only in the petitionary for a night. In December 1882, they called Belle to court. She had recently given birth and was able to push off her appearance until the next Spring.
They were trying to convict her ex-husband for practicing polygamy, and brought her to court to testify against him.
While in court, Belle refused to testify. There were a couple reasons for this, including that the divorce was still very recent:
When she arrived in Spring, she had just received notice that John Taylor had approved the cancellation of her sealing. I believe this is a difficult moment for her.
At first, I think Belle was trying to control a situation that felt very much out of her control. . . .
She was a 22-year-old, single Latter-day Saint woman who had likely never been in a courthouse before. The grand jury of men questioning her was about as far from a jury of her peers as she could imagine. And I think that made her very uncomfortable.
She also knew that the testimony she was asked to provide was meant to undermine her faith community, which, especially at this time in church history, meant they were essentially asking her to undermine her faith. Clarence was also the father of her children.
In my estimation of her and other women of that time, it would’ve been undignified to provide negative personal information to strangers.
Belle also got the sense that to admit to her divorce was to give these men the impression that polygamy was a broken system. At first, Belle refused to testify for the sake of her own sense of privacy and “decency,” as she said, but she also did it to defend the “rights of her people.”
So, her loyalty to the Latter-day Saints, the discomfort of the situation, and the fact that her ex-husband was the father of her children all contributed to her decision to refuse testimony.
It was because she was found to be in contempt of court that she was imprisoned for just over 3 months. (As a side note, this is actually one of the stories mentioned in Saints 2 about sacrifices made to maintain plural marriage.) The state penitentiary wasn’t prepared to house women, so they had to adapt to the situation:
At this point the facilities were rough. Reports of the early prison in Sugarhouse give us a picture of a flea-ridden general population, housed in poorly ventilated adobe cells.
The prison grounds were home to one woman, Alice Shelter Dow who was the wife of Warden George Dow. They had with them their two young children. I think Alice enjoyed the company (she was new to Utah and lived in a very isolated situation).
To avoid impropriety, Alice became an impromptu prison matron and was made the “turnkey” of Belle’s cell. There was a storage room outside the prison walls and the Warden decided to convert it into a cell. Other Latter-day Saint women—and Rudger Clawson—would later stay in this same cell. . . .
Luckily, Belle was allowed to walk the grounds, host visitors, and receive gifts.
She had a very different experience from that of the general population within the walls.
The prison had to improvise to house Belle during her stay.
As mentioned up front, the focus on Belle Harris in the interview was primarily due to the recent online publication of the Belle Harris Prison Journal. The journal is a small, but significant one:
Most of our publications are organized by year, or even decade, Belle’s journal is short enough to be organized by month. It is twenty-nine printed pages, so interested parties can read it in a single sitting, unlike, say, the Joseph Smith Papers.
Part of the significance of the journal is what was recorded in it:
I hate to conflate rarity and significance, but really there isn’t another journal like it. Of the women who were imprisoned, Belle Harris had the longest stay—and she is the only one to keep a journal during that time. . . .
I also believe it is significant because the journal was written very early on in the Raids. Most people tend to overlook the impact of the Edmunds Act and lump it in with the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887. While I understand the impulse, I believe this period of church history merits more precise analysis.
But another reason that the publication is significant is what it portends for the Church Historian’s Press:
The prison journal of Belle Harris is a sign of the department’s ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion in the catalog and in our publications.
I was part of the Asia-pacific acquisitions team for a short time, and it is encouraging to see the large number of oral histories and journals that the Church History Department is continually collecting from all over the globe. I think we can plan on seeing those documents getting a treatment similar to the Harris journal in the future.
The Belle Harris journal is a notable resource for historians to use and a good sign for the future of resources made available through the Church Historian’s Press.
For more on the Belle Harris Prison Journal, including some interesting quotes from her journal, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to read the full interview.